It's a town, but not as we know it

The first of 9,500 homes in Britain s first new town of the 21st century are expected to be built in two years time. When it is completed in 15-20 years time, Northstowe – between Huntingdonshire and Cambridge – will be home to 24,000 souls with their o

The first of 9,500 homes in Britain's first new town of the 21st century are expected to be built in two years' time.

When it is completed in 15-20 years' time, Northstowe - between Huntingdonshire and Cambridge - will be home to 24,000 souls with their own town centre, at least one secondary school, six primary schools, two employment areas, three sports hubs and more than 20 children's play areas.

Report by IAN MacKELLAR

THE Northstowe "masterplan", unveiled on Friday at the first of seven public consultation meetings, sets out a vision of a town unlike any other in the world.

The housing will be "not as we now know it", according to developers Gallagher and the national regeneration agency English Partnerships, with new designs to the latest eco-friendly specification, its own heat and energy supplies and a neutral carbon footprint.

The devil, of course, will be in the details. But at a briefing on Thursday, enthusiastic promoters described how they had defined homes, employment, shopping and leisure facilities around a society of the future, building on the existing physical and historic landscape, on archaeology dating from Roman settlements and on the aspirations of the people they want to attract to live there.

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One third of the employable adults will also work there, either in companies that settle there or from their own homes, naturally using installed broadband infrastructure. The developers also envisage a community intranet, run by a (so far theoretical) local authority for the new town.

Northstowe is based on the former airfield and barracks at Oakington, land that will comprise two thirds of the guided-bus-served new settlement of 427 hectares, separated from the villages of Longstanton and Oakington by strips of natural green space up to 380 metres wide. So, notionally at least, only the remaining third of the new town's footprint is on genuinely greenfield land.

Government inspectors earlier this year threw out South Cambridgeshire planners' demand for 200-metre boundaries with the villages on the grounds that the requirement would be too prescriptive.

But Malcolm Smith, of design and engineering consultants Arup, who was in charge of the masterplan development, said preservation of the character of the Longstanton conservation area had been a key consideration in the design.

Another starting point, Mr Smith asserted, had been that Northstowe was an "edge of fenland" settlement - a concept that might raise the odd eyebrow in the real Fens.

The developers are determined not to repeat some of the mistakes from Cambourne, where the triggers for building community facilities were too lax and inadequately enforced. Only now are those facilities, such as the Hub community centre, pub, hotel and sports facilities emerging when the three-village settlement is half built.

Although link roads from the A14 will be among the first facilities to be installed, along with mains services and sewerage, housing development of 1,000-1,500 homes will begin at the north end of the site, with the higher-density town centre following.

The developers have clearly taken a lot of care to make Northstowe an attractive place to live, harnessing not just the views of natural and existing built landscape but even the prevailing weather conditions into the overall design.

The town will have three "districts", each with its own shopping and employment areas, in addition to the town centre, which will be based on a traditional market town model with streets only as long as idle people are likely to be prepared to walk. Cycling and walking are watchwords under-pinning this new social experiment in urban design.

"Northstowe will be a high-quality and sustainable place for present and future generations to live, work and enjoy leisure time" the developers say.

The 9,500 new homes will offer "a range of housing types, including homes for key workers, first-time buyers, shared ownership and those on low incomes to help meet the local need for affordable housing. Sustainability will be a crucial element of the new town".

But Gallagher director Alan Joyner admits the town will not be really sustainable - in terms of being largely self-contained in terms of employment, education, social, leisure and energy provision - until around half the total number of homes are built and occupied. And it will still be a building site. But, well managed, that need not be a drawback.

It will be an interesting time for South Cambridgeshire. The devel-opment of nearby Bar Hill threw up serious problems. Those were resolved at Cambourne, but serious new issues emerged. We are promised those mistakes will not be repeated at Northstowe, but there will undoubtedly be other, currently unforeseen, problems to resolve. It will be a measure of the resolve of the new planning body, the district council itself, the developers and the Government - whose planning policy is driving the whole development - to ensure that problems are dealt with quickly and effectively.

Northstowe is a brave new world. But not all brave new worlds end in 1984.